Much of what Rachel* remembers of the major depressive episodes that marked her early and mid-20s is “tangled in some sort of deranged, disconnected state,” but she does know that her needs were ever-changing.
“When all I thought I needed to pull me out from under the cloud was people to know and to understand and be with me, that turned into a drain on my energies and sanity,” she said.
Then, when she thought she needed space, “that ended up causing resentment that no one cared enough to be around me or to make sure I was okay.”
Ultimately, she said, “whatever support I received, it was never enough.”
Sometimes it felt like the harder her partner, Jenna, tried, the worse Rachel’s depression became.
“Watching her perseverance and well-intentioned efforts would just mount the feelings of guilt I felt at not being OK, at not being able to be better and not being able to give her anything back in return,” Rachel said.
Supporting a partner through a mental illness can be challenging and, sometimes, overwhelming. Here are a few starting points for giving them the help they need.
When someone you love has depression, you might feel you should instinctively know how to support them. But depression manifests differently for everyone. Even if you’ve experienced it yourself, you won’t necessarily understand exactly how depression feels for your partner or how they would like you to support them.
“Just because you think you understand doesn’t mean you do,” therapist Jasmin Terrany said. “Focus on trying to get a full sense of their actual experience. People heal when they feel understood and accepted for exactly as they are in the moment.”
But also recognize that explaining what depression feels like can be exhausting.
“One of the things about having a mental health issue is that you do spend a lot of time teaching others about it,” said Sasha R. Moghimi-Kian, a writer from Miami who has bipolar disorder II and PTSD. “Much like explaining race to non-white people, or being a woman to men, you are constantly trying to challenge preconceptions and misconceptions.”
If you’re worried your partner is having suicidal thoughts, psychiatrist and author Gail Saltz said you should ask them about it.
“You won’t cause them to be suicidal” by asking, Saltz said. “But you can save their life if they affirm that they are suicidal by taking them to an emergency room.”
As hard as it can be to watch your partner struggling, quell the impulse to go into what marriage and family therapist Mabel Yiu calls “fix-it mode.” Rushing to offer solutions, she said, might ease your own feelings of helplessness or anxiety, but it could cause your partner to pull away.
Avoid listing off all the reasons your partner has to feel happy, therapist Erin Parisi said.
“Unfortunately, the hidden (or not so hidden) message is: ‘You shouldn’t feel this way,’” she said. “Depression isn’t logical, so pointing out the many good things doesn’t necessarily help them feel better. It can actually do the opposite, making the person with depression feel guilty for being depressed.”
While you can’t “fix” your partner’s depression, you can look for tangible ways to offer support. That might mean doing an extra share of household chores, helping them find a therapist, or encouraging them to take a shower, drink some water or eat a meal. Again, it’s essential to listen to their needs and meet them where they are.
In the midst of a particularly acute flare up, remind yourself that it’s OK to let some things slide. Yiu recommends identifying the essential tasks required to keep the household running. It may help to map out a step-by-step strategy so you can both see what needs to be done and determine which of you is responsible for each piece.
“It’s much easier to handle little by little,” Yiu said.
To avoid internalizing your partner’s depressed mood, you’ll need to stay mindful of your personal boundaries, therapist GinaMarie Guarino said.
“You must make sure you take care of your mental and physical health and wellness, and not sacrifice your own needs for the needs of others,” she said.
While your partner is in active depression, they will not necessarily be able to support you as you process feelings like anger, resentment, sadness, or guilt that their depression may bring up in you. Parisi suggests building an outside support network—that might mean leaning on family or friends, finding a support group or seeking out a therapist of your own.
If you want a single rule of thumb for how best to support a partner dealing with depression, start from here: Practice compassion, toward both of you, whenever you can muster it.
*Some names have been changed or shortened.
Sophie Ouellette-Howitz is a freelance writer and former rugby player living in Portland, Oregon, whose passions include black coffee, impractical shoes and petting as many cats as possible before she dies. She teaches writing for Elephant Rock and is a nonfiction reader for Orison Books. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in SELF, Pigeon Pages, Past Ten, the Portland Mercury and other publications. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ohphiesay.